Breeding excellence

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Published on 5/24/10

How do you breed excellence? This question was discussed at my recent roundtable discussion with large-firm managing partners. I suppose that before we go too far, we should first decide what excellence means. And that was difficult for the managing partners in the discussion.

Is it like pornography, something without definition but clear when seen? One suggestion provided was that a person of excellence is the "top dog" — the one all clients want to handle their matters, who inspires confidence — a person who gets results and is in frequent communication with clients to let them know how their matters are progressing without untoward surprises. Yes, you know it when you experience it.

In a political context, I equate it to stories I've heard about Bill Clinton and a few others like him, to the effect that they command the room when they arrive. When the top dog enters the room, it's the same reaction. Clients look to him or her for advice.

How do you find the top dog in your firm? One answer might be to look at your clients' reactions. From whom in your firm do your clients prefer to take advice? In some sense, who has the biggest gross billings and how did they get that way? That may be one clue to the question.

Our discussion then turned to the extensive lateral movement among lawyers in today's economic turmoil, and the question was posed: Can these top dogs be taken from another firm? The conclusion among this group of managing partners, who I assure you have tried, is that such people are wedded to their current firms. If that is the case, just as an aside, I would wonder how effective all the lateral moves you read about recently will be.

So, if you can't steal away these people, and you will know them when you see them, the next question has to be: How do you breed this excellence from within the law firm? Yes, these skills are teachable. But, what kinds of programs do you offer? Obviously, the individual must have the technical skills of his or her practice area, such as tax, labor, etc., and continue to remain current as these areas change.

Then, the individual must know the business aspects of running a law practice. The business of law is knowledge that all top dogs have; further, in my experience, they also take associates under their wing and mentor them to greater success. While I can't detail the precise curriculum for this skill, becoming a top dog is teachable.

Perhaps, though, it's teachable only to those newer lawyers who pay attention, who really want to become a top dog in their own right, and who have the work ethic required to become successful.

In other words, we must first find the person who is willing to pay attention, who is willing to spend the time necessary to learn the skills of the top dog and who does not complain when there are long hours needed to commit to success. People who feel entitled to success need not apply.

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